IN the Ravine

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We always knew someone in The Compound would fall in the ravine. Lord knows Dad tried. He decided in 2010 he would cut brush and clean up the vines on the bank; you know, “clear the land.” He devised the perfect way to enter and exit the big ditch. He routinely lowered a tall ladder (a really, really tall one) over the edge of the bank and propped it against a tree on the steep side of the ravine. Before descending, he’d throw all the tools he might need somewhere near the ladder. When he finished with a tool, he reared back and threw the tool onto level ground.

You haven’t really lived–or maybe come so close to dying–as feeling a hatchet whiz by your head while peacefully attending the weeds in the lower garden.

I yelled as soon as I heard the whoosh of the ax. “Dad! You almost got me!”

He shinnied up the ladder, and when he finally saw me, said, “But I didn’t.”

Dad stopped his forays into the ravine a few years ago. I admit I was a bit relieved. He  warned me, “Don’t get too close to that ravine. That ground is soft. You don’t want to fall in.”

The vines returned; Virginia Creeper, Japanese honeysuckle, wintercreeper, and a few muscadines. Brush re-established; same old non-native privet, pokeweed, winterberry, and thistles. We keep them controlled for about two feet off the back yard, what we can easily reach. We’ve also seen a fair assortment of plants whose roots or bulbs Dad tossed over the edge including Rose-of-Sharon, iris, cannas, and a couple berry briars.

This past May, I noticed a bunch of  one- to two-foot Royal Pawlonia sprouts in the area where we’d taken down the tree several years ago. We’ve watched the grounds carefully since the removal of the offender, so I was surprised to see the scary little crop with the pretty purple flowers. Royal Pawlonia, or Princess Tree, is wildly invasive and spews out millions–no, really, I mean millions–of seeds every year. If you want to find out how bad it really is, just look it up in your Wikipedia.

“Dave,” I said, “you’re going to have to spray those little purple trees or we’re going to have hundreds of them full-grown before we know it.”

He chose to fertilize the roses and eradicate the Pawlonia shoots on a Sunday about 1:30. I knew he was tending to roses, but I did not know he’d loaded up a sprayer to kill the tiny trees.

I put on what I call my painting clothes, dug weeds, and had just gone upstairs to Mom and Dad’s apartment to tend to some needs of our old folks when I heard the special tune on the phone.

“Hello, I know it’s you,” I said to Dave.

He answered, “Help, I’ve fallen into the ravine and I can’t get out.”

“What do you want?” I asked my usual first question when he starts with some (lame) humor.

“I want you to come get me out of the ravine.”

“So what are you doing in the ravine?” I chuckled a little.

“I was spraying those purple things.” He blew out hard.

“You’re joking, right?”

His voice gained decibels. “No, I’m not joking. You have to come help me.”

“Well, I’m not…” I started to tell him no way was I going to go in with him. “No, wait, are you hurt?”

“Yes, I’m hurt,” he said.

“I’ll be right there.” I stuck my phone in my pocket and called to Mom in the kitchen, “He’s not kidding. He fell in the ravine.”

I hurried down the steps of the apartment and ran over to the edge of our beloved big ditch. He was lying on the bank in a mostly-vertical position, the spectre enhanced by a bush with little white flowers wreathed around his head. I saw blood.

“Where are you hurt?” I called.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you think you’ve broken anything? A leg? Arm? Shoulder?” I asked.

“I don’t think so, but I can’t get up the bank.”

“Okay, let me just…” I tested three places on the ground above him. All were soft.

“I think we better call 911. I can’t get down there,” I said.

“No, don’t call them. Go get Don.”

I called our next-door neighbor, hoping he’d be home.

When he answered, I asked, “Don, are you at home?”

“Yeah.”

“Dave has fallen in the ravine. We need help.”

All the other times I call him, Dave is headed his way with soup or ham or pie. He could have been disappointed, but he was there in what seemed like two seconds.

“See that stump?” I asked. “He’s just to this side of the stump.”

Don called down to Dave to check his condition. I whispered, “I think he landed on his face. There’s a lot of blood on his face.”

“Have you got a long pole?” he asked.  I don’t know what I gave him, but he told Dave he was lowering the pole. “You grab on and I’ll pull you out.”

Dave struggled to hold to the pole, and when he finally got it in two hands, his feet gave way to the slippery slope.

Don turned to me. “I’m going down.”

“No, don’t do that,” I said. “Then I’d just have two of you down there. Dad used to go up and down on a tall ladder. Maybe we should try that.”

“That’s right. Where’s the ladder?” he asked.

“Propped against the side of the garage over there.” I pointed. “I’ll help you.”

“I don’t need any help. I can get it,” Don said, but I still followed a few steps behind him. He picked up the ladder. We stopped at the edge and looked down. “I don’t see anything to prop it against.”

“What’s wrong with that stump he just face-planted?” I asked.

“Dave, I’m lowering the ladder right next to you. Do you think you can get on it if I prop it on that stump?” Don asked.

“Maybe,” Dave answered.

After two unsuccessful attempts Don said, “He can’t get his feet on the ladder.”

“I’ll go down on the ladder and pull him onto it,” I said.

Don was quick to stop me. “No, then I’d just have the two of YOU down there. I’ll go down.”

“I’m on the ladder,” Dave yelled.

“Did you get on it? Can you climb it?” Don asked.

At the top of the ravine, Don grabbed Dave and pulled him up.

“Thanks, Don.  Dave, honey, come on, get in the van. We’re headed for the ER.”

He staggered after me in the garage. I threw a towel in the passenger seat for him to sit on.

Southern Hills Hospital is a mile and a half from us. We were there bloody, muddy, and generally nasty but triaged and in a bay in no time.

I looked at my watch. 4:30. My friend Peggy and I had a Lyft scheduled at 6:00 to take us to Schermerhorn Symphony Center to see PostModern Jukebox. This was the second time I’d bought tickets to PMJ. The first time I was ill and, even though I tried, no one used the tickets. The current set of tickets was a birthday gift to my friend and I had already reneged on another trip (another story) so I was determined. (I’m trying to pre-explain why I did what I did later.)

I messaged Peggy. Dave is in the ER. Fell in ravine.

Peggy:  Is he hurt?

Me: I don’t think it’s too bad. I mean, he’s bloody and all that, but the doctor ordered x-rays and CT. They just came and took him to x-ray. He’s got a big gash on his face.

She asked more questions about his condition and then finished with No way we can get to the Schermerhorn on time. 

I was quick. We’re going to see PostModern Jukebox.

Peggy:  I’m dressed. I’ll wait until you tell me to leave home. The drive from Readyville to our house is about forty-five minutes.

After the CT scan, I was relieved to know that all Dave needed was a few stitches across one side of his face–the side that hit the stump. (He’d already started planning a story about how he got the scar in a bar, his favorite tale, something about defending my honor.)

I messaged Peggy. We’re going to go to the concert.

Peggy: But you’re not dressed. Didn’t you say you had to get in the shower?

Me: I can make do. I’ll hurry. I’m going to call Darrin (Dave’s son–mine, too). I should have already called him. 

I messaged the whole story to Darrin and Dana, ending with, “So can you come and pick up Dave and take him home? They’re about to sew up his face and I’ve got tickets to PMJ.” I knew Darrin the Drummer would understand.

I turned to Dave.  “Honey, do you think it would be okay for me to go home, get dressed, and go to the concert?”

“Sure,” he said, “but you’ll need to bring me a vehicle so I can drive home. Maybe Peggy could bring me the van while you get dressed.” He really hadn’t thought that she’d need to get back to our house somehow.

Peggy answered my earlier text. I don’t see how.

Me: Come on, we’ll figure it out. 

I received a return message from Dana. Darrin is on a plane. (He travels for work.) Do you think it would be okay for me to bring Evan with me? Evan is their very active three-year-old.

I wouldn’t, I answered. What if you just came and picked him up? He can call you when he’s ready.

“Is that okay, honey?” I asked Dave.

“Sure,” he said.

She called. “I can pick him up. Tell him to call me and Evan and I will come and get him. I’ll stay with him for a while to make sure he’s okay.”

I told her I needed to leave like, right now, and to text me when she got Dave home. She told me to go on and have a good time.

At home, I threw off my filthy pants and shirt, washed my face and reapplied deodorant, sprayed some dry-cleaner on my hair followed by a some fluffing, and found some clothes decent enough to wear. At least I think they were decent enough.

Peggy yelled “I’m here” when she came in the door.

I was still in the bathroom. “You have to take Dave’s wallet to him.” I rushed to the bureau where he kept his wallet.

“To the emergency room?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, handing it to her.

While she was gone, I had plenty of time to smear some makeup around and grab earrings. It wasn’t my regular routine, but I declared it finished.

In the Lyft vehicle, I looked down to see that my feet looked like they were still in the dirt. I had two wipes in my purse and used both of them. My feet weren’t perfect but they were “better than they were,” one of Dave’s favorite sayings.

***

We arrived at the Schermerhorn just in time.

I checked messages every few minutes. No word from Dana. Finally, I texted her to ask how things went. She thought she had already messaged me. She said things went fine except… Oh my god Diana he looked like an ax murderer.

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What a show, what a show! PMJ was all I thought they should be and more. At one point, I gave thanks for Dad’s ravine trips up and down the ladder, for Dave’s willingness  to allow me to abandon him in his hour of need (he really wasn’t that bad off, okay?), for Dana’s pickup and delivery, but especially for my man’s survival with less-than-could-have-been injuries.

So, maybe the thanksgiving was after the concert when I got home to see him sitting in his recliner watching one of his favorite shows.

“I got all but about two of those little purple things,” he said.

I love that man.

***

 

The Last Best Place on Earth

For Dad, it’s Alive Hospice, Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

The Nashville facility was full and the admissions nurse so determined that Dad needed to be there that she sent him to the Murfreesboro campus at midnight Friday.

Daddy rests in a large room halfway between the nurse’s desk and a family room containing comfortable chairs, recliners, and couches that flip into beds. There are several family rooms here, one with a dining area in front of a wall full of windows. The light streams in as if on cue.

In Dad’s room, we keep the lights dim. The room is quiet and peaceful; so is Dad.

He only stayed at the skilled nursing facility less than two days. We knew it was not the place for him, and when his kidneys began to fail Friday, the attending nurse practitioner recommended an immediate move.

With the help of the SNF’s social workers and nurses, Alive Hospice Nurse Gail ordered an ambulance for 11:00 P.M. They arrived at 11:45, two youngsters in ball caps reading Medic One.

“I’ll be riding in the back with him,” the smaller one said. “I see his diagnosis here is dementia. Has he ever become combative or kicked or punched a nurse or tech?”

I hesitated. “Yes, he did at the hospital, but that was when he was in complete psychosis. He’s not doing that now.”

“Well, I just wanted to let you know that if that happens….”

Big Guy butted in. “No, no,” he told his sidekick. “If something happens, you just let me know and I’ll pull over to the side of the road and come back there to help you get him calmed. We want to be very soft…soft.”

I could actually imagine a scene like that.

I left before the ambulance. The ramp to I-440 was closed, probably because of a fatal accident earlier in the day, but when I turned around to go the opposite direction, there were cars making left turns onto the interstate so I followed them.

I met Shirley, the night charge nurse, the techs, and the front door security guard. Shirley went over the care plan, medications that they’d be using, and ways they operate. She said the doctor would see me on Saturday. I told her it was already Saturday.

A nurse stuck her head in the room. “I am wondering what is taking that transport so long. Did you leave a long time before they did?”

“No, I was right in front of them, but I bet they got to that closed ramp and found another route.”

Turns out, that’s exactly what happened. They were automatically re-routed.

Dad was awake. Shirley explained what was happening.

“Ernie, we’re going to give you some pain medication and then we’ll give you a bath first thing and get you all freshened up.”

Two techs and two nurses busied themselves over him. He talked to them in slurred speech and from an altered state, but they caught about every third sentence.

“You are a handsome man,” one said. Another asked him about his 72-year marriage. “What’s the secret?” she asked.

“Let each other be free to grow and develop” is what we think we heard. I confirmed that he might have said that.

Then came the washing of the private parts.

“Ernie, we are going to have to wash you down there. Normally, we’d just let you do it, but you have some leftover bm there and we want you to be clean, okay?”

“Ah, you girls just want to look at me,” he said. “All the time.”

We all laughed at him.

“No, we don’t, but I’m going to raise your gown and clean you up and then we’ll put a fresh pad and gown on you.”

He picked up a towel a tech had left beside him. “Then I’m just going to put this over my face,” he said, and hid his whole head from the offending eyes.

We laughed some more, but they got him cleaned up and bundled up in his new bed.

***

Dad now gets a pretty stiff cocktail of haldol, morphine, and a valium-like drug. The dosage is small but repeatable. If he is not calm twenty minutes after the last offering, the nurse starts the routine again, or she slightly increases the morphine.

He lies quiet in the bed most of the time but when the meds start to wear off, he twists, grimaces, and mumbles.

The grandsons and families came to visit yesterday, including Jaxton and Savannah, ages 5 and 3. Neither was upset by Grandpa’s condition. Savvy said hi to him several times, anxious to get an answer from him.  Mom was glad to see the little ones.

I stayed last night. I played music to him and sang to him, hoping something might connect. In the middle of the night, I heard him say, “Diana.” I wasn’t sure of that until I sat up and waited for him to call me again. It’s like what happens when you try to say my name without being able to move the tongue.

“Lie-ah-uh,” it sounds like.

“What, Dad? What do you need?”

He grasps my hand. I kiss him on his old bald head.

“You’re in a really good place,” I tell him.

 

Trying hard to leave.

My daddy hovers, sometimes thrashes, naked, his mind somewhere along an invisible jagged line between his tiny spot of time and space on earth and the ultimate reality of Infinity.

His heart beats so fast sometimes that we fear stroke. Doctors get his heart rate down and his blood pressure goes up. Get the blood pressure down too low and some other wheel falls off the old bus.

He fell in his bedroom sometime very early a week ago Tuesday morning. Before we found him on the floor with a bloody gash on his head,  he’d pulled shirts, belts, and a bootjack from his closet. He told us he’d ducked into a shed for shelter from the rain and realized he’d stepped into some man’s corn crib. Then he couldn’t get out of the field and had crawled through rough straw for miles.

Dad did not get confused because he fell; he fell because he was already confused in the night and hallucinating. We’ve seen a slow slide toward dementia for about three years, but since last Christmas the disease has tracked him like a cat, consistently and with increasing speed. We’ve watched a wretched auto-immune disease rob him of the ability to enjoy food and then to swallow well. His legs grew weaker and weaker, so often he could not stand, even with his walker.

In the emergency room after the fall, he fought with three cats, two black and one black and white, that kept pouncing on the bed. Every time he kicked them off, they came back.  I shooed them away. He re-told the corn crib story with variations and repeated an earlier adventure stripping tobacco with two youngsters who would not talk to him. He was pretty sure they could talk, they just wouldn’t. The ER physician called a hospitalist to provide overnight observation.

Once in the room on the fifth floor tests began, including an ultra-sound on his legs. The technician came in Wednesday morning, made it through the scan of one leg and then Dad refused. He kicked at the machine operator. She dodged and moved the equipment. He kicked some more. When nurses arrived to rescue the tech, he doubled his fists and slapped at them.

I said, “I don’t think you’re going to get that next one.”

She smiled and said, “I’m pretty sure of that.”

Within a few hours, the a-fib grew worse and Dad grew so wild and combative I wished for restraints. They came quickly. He did not sleep–not one wink-– for four days.  One night, I bent over to pick something up just under the edge of his bed and even though his hands were tied, he grabbed my hair. It took a few minutes to pry his hand loose.

My dad’s wild mind fashioned a scary story with escalating horror. He gave me the base plot as he dressed me down. I was trying to kill him, leading a band of nurses are my followers. He kept saying that he can’t believe I would do this for money.  “Greed. Evil. You are no daughter of mine.” I stood stark still, as if at attention, stung and disoriented. The words might have attached themselves to a deep sorrow if I hadn’t heard a voice. “This is not your dad.”

For several hours, there was a huge farm machine loose on his farm. We–the nurses, Jade, John, and I–had already destroyed the farm with this wrecker/excavator. We knocked down trees and ran through the shallow creek, breaking the flat limestone into small pieces. We were going to let it run over him, and then it was somehow above him and we were preparing to let it fall to crush him. One hour we were setting him afire. Another time, we were trying to poison him.

He disowned me, then started yelling again. I tried to slip a dry mouth lozenge in his mouth but I wasn’t quick enough. He can’t bite since he has no teeth but he clamped his jaws shut, turtle tight. Then he said to the air on his left, “Jameson, look at your mother. This is the kind of mama you have.” Jameson is my grandson, not my grandson, and he is safe at home in his own bed.

Dad got back to serious yelling. “Where is Mom [my mother]? She’s the only good person around here.”

The student nurse asked, “Does he like music?”

“Yes!” I said. “I can’t believe I haven’t thought of that. I should have brought in a player. There’s no music channel on the TV.”

Wait, I thought. I could stream from my laptop.

I grabbed my almost-dead HP from my bag and began the frustrating process of hooking up to the hospital free-for-visitors wi-fi. It’s a finicky network. I spent twenty minutes and then gave up.

Dad changed the venue. “Help! Come on, we’re down here in the bottom by the creek. They’re trying to crucify us all.”

The last time he had mentioned crucifixion, the nurses were attaching restraints. I watched him pull at the cords and thought of rodeos and roped calves. I remembered a pig bound and hung for slaughter at my grandfather’s farm, and of holding my dog Murphy for an injection.

That night, I left him praying. The words were plain and the sentences cohesive. “Lord, thank you for this life I’ve been given. And if you want me to die now, I’ll come. I ask you to forgive Diana and all these evil persons who are doing this to me. They know not what they do. Take care of their little children.” I walked out of the room, on down the long hall to the parking garage.

The next time, he was on the hill at the farm in Smith County. He called for his mother. “Mama, come on here. I’m up on the hill. They’re about to kill your last son. Don’t you see the smoke?”

He did not remember that seventy-two years ago on the same day, Halloween, he and my mother took a long taxi ride to Georgia and married. He was seventeen, she “fourteen-almost-fifteen,” they said.

My mom waits at home, not really worrying, just pondering. She is dressed in blue matching pants and top, her curly hair neatly combed back, and her ensemble accessorized with the usual rings, earrings, bracelet, and necklace.

After two days and several doses of psychiatric drugs, the restraints were removed. He was still agitated but not trying to hurt anyone. He rolled his sheet and blanket into a wad and tossed them to the floor. He pulled his arms through his gown, easing the heart monitor through a sleeve. The gown and a couple Chux pads found the floor. I heard a pop, pop, pop as he removed the leads to the heart monitor. He seemed pleased that he had wires to untwist. He repeated the process several times.

He slid down the bed and pounded the foot rail in a surprisingly steady rhythm. He called for my mother, yelling louder than he’s been able to in years.

I told him, “Dad, Mom is not here.”

Sometimes, for a minute or two, he believed me when I told him, “You’re in the hospital, Dad.”

“In the hospital? What am I doing here?”

I told him, “You have to stay for a while until you get better, and you are getting better.”

“Am I in South Carthage?”

“No, Dad, you’re in Nashville. At St. Thomas.”

At times, it connected and he said,  “Oh-h-h-h-h-h.” Another time he added, nodding his head, “So that’s the problem!”

One afternoon, he asked, “Did you know the cats are back?”

“No,” I said. “What are they doing?”

“Oh, they’re just lying around down there at the foot of the bed.”

I said, “But you’re not trying to kick them off.”

“No, I got used to them.”

From time to time, the psychiatrist Dr. Le Coguic stuck her head in the room to ask a few questions with telling answers.

She: What year is it, Mr. Blair? He: 2017. She: When were you born? He: Five, twenty-nine, no. Five, nine, no. Twenty-five. She: That’s good enough! Now who’s the President? He: Truman. She: Hmmmmm.

I snuck in a word there. “He really knows. I asked him myself yesterday and he said Truman and I said, ‘No, it’s Trump, Dad,’ and he said, ‘Yes, that’s who I mean so just pretend I’m saying Trump when I say Truman.'”

Dr. Le Coguic laughs out loud. “Good enough!” she said.

The next time she asked him, he said, “Oh, that damn Trump. Truman.”

The morning of November 7, I walked into the room where a soft-spoken chaplain introduced herself to me as Gail. She was asking Dad if he was a spiritual person. She didn’t understand him, but he answered her, “I suppose so. I’ve got a Master’s of Divinity from seminary.” I translated a few sentences to her until Dr. Chris MacMurdro from the Palliative Care Department stepped in. Because Dad was still talking with Gail, Dr. Mac asked if we might step down the hall to talk.

“Call me Dr. Mac or Chris,” she said and explained her specialty.  After several minutes of discussion about what I might expect or anticipate or decide, Dr. Mac told me with his refusal to eat or drink, Dad would likely be gone in two weeks. It’s too early for hospice, she said, but you will need them. If Dad goes to a skilled nursing facility, he might get a few days.

Just as Dr. Mac and I were ending our conversation, Gail approaches us from the doorway of the family waiting room. “Your dad,” she said, and placed her hand over her heart. “Oh my. And thank you for helping me understand what he was saying. I could understand him after that.”

“Good,” I said.

“This is the first time a patient has prayed over me,” she said.

“He did?” I asked.

She teared up. “I asked him if he would like me to pray with him, and he took my hands and said, ‘I’ll pray for you.'”

“And he did?” I said.

“Yes, and now I have to go sit down somewhere and cry.”

***

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Still a small smile.

Later that day, when I told Dr. Mac the evening Zyprexa seemed to make Dad more agitated instead of less as it was supposed to do, she wanted to revisit his history of hallucinations and his increasingly weak legs. “Let me go back and look at his chart again,” she said. “I’ll call you back.”

“Dad,” I said, “would you drink one of your protein shakes? I have a cooler over here with three drinks in it. Which one–chocolate or vanilla?”

His eyes lit up a little. “Chocolate!”

I rolled the bed up and offered him the straw in the bottle. He tried to take the bottle.

“I want to drink it. Myself.”

“Well, okay.” I grabbed some Chux pads and tucked one around the top half of his body. I helped him hold the drink, with him struggling to wrest it from me, until I knew he’d had enough that he wouldn’t immediately pour the stuff all over himself.

He drank almost all of the eight ounces. He drank almost ALL of the EIGHT OUNCES, the most food of any kind he’d had since more than a week ago. 

Dr. Mac called.  “Diana, this is not Alzheimer’s. I’m thinking more like Parkinson’s with Lewy bodies. That would explain the reaction to the Zyprexa. Do you know much about Parkinson’s?”

“Enough. A lot,” I said.

She said he wanted to confer with the hospitalist, Dr. Meadors, about switching him over to something like Valium, which would be much more effective if we were treating Parkinson’s.

Sure enough, the Valium (or whatever it was) helped calm him. Dr. Mac called to say that Dad appeared now to qualify for in-patient hospice, and she had arranged a meeting with Rosie from Alive Hospice downtown. She explained her wish for inpatient hospice.

“The Parkinson’s thought changes everything. His medications seem to be headed in the right direction. He could use the meds management at inpatient to get them all tweaked to the point that you could manage him at home with the help of home hospice.” She fears for my ability to physically manage him at home right now and for my mother’s emotional health as she watches Dad decline.

I made her promise that she will always work toward our goal of getting him home. She repeats to me all the information I’ve given her, including the DNR and comfort care directives.

End of day, Wednesday, November 7.  Dad slept peacefully almost all night.

Yesterday morning, he knew me when I arrived. He smiled and said, “Hello, honey.” Dr. Mac called to discuss the latest strategy since he has improved enough that he probably does not qualify for inpatient hospice. “We’re thinking we can send him over to the rehab facility.”

Dad and I sat in quiet most of the day yesterday. He was tired. He thought he might want sausage and eggs. I tried. He drank a bit of milk shake. I tried again. I massaged his aching hands with cream, swabbed his gums and washed out his mouth.

“You’re going to make me bald,” he said when I rubbed his head. That’s a little joke we have. Not long after that, we both dozed at the same time.

When I told him I was leaving for the day, he said, “Be careful driving home. Is it still raining?”

I said, “No.” It did not rain all day yesterday.

Just as I started to exit the room, he called softly but firmly, “You are going to call Red Blair to help you get that big machine off the hill, aren’t you?”

“I sure will,” I promised.

*****

 

 

 

 

 

Murphy bit my nose.

I knew it was coming someday, and it was my own fault. She was already in bed, curled up, occupying the space that would hold my feet if that little Punkin’ wasn’t there. I bent down at the foot of the bed to kiss her on the head and she didn’t feel me coming. Bless her, she can’t see, hear nor smell very well,  but most of the time she senses me present. She didn’t hurt me and didn’t growl. It was as close as she could get to biting without biting.

We’ll celebrate Murphy’s fourteenth birthday April 22.

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Jameson Blair Graham, the oldest grandson, will turn fourteen on May 17.  Our little black and white fuzzball Murphy Sweet Punkin’ has been plagued with medical problems, including an autoimmune disease, and has already lived past the average age of demise for a Shih-tzu. In contrast, Jameson is leaned in and fast approaching adulthood. He’s left all pre-teen notions behind and is a bonafide, full-fledged teenager.  He still loves his young cousin, and they think he’s wonderful. He’ll be driving on a learner’s permit in a little over a year.

Yeah, we know what’s coming, and we know it’s coming soon.

We bought a lift chair for Dad yesterday. It is a pretty chair, just the right size for his space, chocolate brown faux suede. LIFT chairDad turns eighty-nine in September. He’s fallen several times since Christmas, the time when his scleroderma started acting out as if on a mission. Some days, he’s needed help to get out of his old favorite recliner–or actually any chair he sits in. His legs won’t hold him up without his Rollator, and several times a day, he can’t even move his feet holding to the walker.

After Sunday Dinner this week, Dave and I made the decision to set the table at the apartment from now on. Mom always writes Sunday Dinner with the two capitals, I think because it’s one of their favorite times at our house.  We set the table with the good silverware and glasses, and we always use cloth napkins–unless we’re eating pasta with red sauce or pork barbecue. Dad was too weak to eat Sunday. It was exhausting to walk those one hundred steps or so to the table, impossible for him to navigate to a chair in the den, and futile to think he could get out of his at-my-house favorite, an old red chenille recliner.

Murphy loved Old Red in her younger years. It’s been a long time since she could jump on and off a chair.Murphy3

Monday morning, he was in the bedroom trying to play Merle Haggard on his new boombox (generously donated on Sunday afternoon by fellow book-clubber Susan) when he fell, punching out the cane back of his sturdy wooden chair. I hurried next door when Mom called. Dave was away from home, but I knew I could call on neighbor Don to help me get him up if necessary.  I found Dad on all fours, trying to crawl across the bedroom to the bathroom. He knew he needed to clean up and change some clothes. With Mom’s help, I convinced him to get his chest against his punched-out chair. It took three tries, but I got him up–and he helped. His voice was so weak I could barely hear him.

Once in the bathroom, he cleaned up as much as he could, holding himself upright by pressing against the clothes dryer. I “polished him off” and then scrubbed down the place, paying particular attention to the washer and dryer that acted as his props. I was reminded to find Mom a dryer since hers quit that very morning.  Later that afternoon, I bought a new dryer at Lowe’s and drove a few miles to Franklin to pick up my newly repaired sewing machine.

The dryer arrived on Tuesday morning.

We moved Dad’s old leather recliner downstairs to his study, a place nobody goes anymore except to water overwintering plants. We got another wooden armchair for Dad’s bedroom and started looking for a sturdy chair for the den, one that might be described as “easy in, easy out.”  Then we put Old Red up for sale, even though it really was the most comfortable seat in the house. It doesn’t match the den colors anyway.

So we’re prepared. We know what’s coming, but we don’t know how soon.

 

I’m no poet.

Some days I’m not sure I’m even a writer.  Writers are like that.

But Monday I took a small carton of blackberries to my friend and she wrote on a social media post: “Yum. Home grown blackberries with a little cream and raw sugar. Thank you, my sweet fruit fairy…”

Along with the blackberries, I shared a little ditty with her. She is a poet, a real one, but the fruit fairy was unashamed.

 

His Best Thing

 

I think blackberries are my dad’s best thing. Better than best, maybe best-est. Perhaps most best.

His briar patch is a twenty-foot arbor on the southwest side of our house.

He built it the spring after we all moved to the new place.

It might be a pergola, or maybe a trellis, but he named it Arbor and it stuck,

The propping place for fruit-heavy branches and gravity-driven berries on tender vine tips.

 

He stretched galvanized two by four-inch farm fence through its middle and across its top,

Secured in spaces on four-by-fours,

Sunk deep in the ground

To the credit of a post-hole digger he brought from the farm.

 

He offers them one non-negotiable itinerary–up and out–

And they don’t mind going there,

But old habits of reach and arch point them groundward.

They see by his wire that all they’ll get is a proper path built for their own good.

They repent, and bow to the farmer’s convenience.

 

I collect at the bottom. Think I don’t know what they say about low-hanging fruit?

I’ll always pick it first, unimpressed by gossip.

Sometimes, easy-does-it hides big treasures.

Besides, they contradicted themselves when they said

“Don’t step into a briar where a snake might lurk to strike.”

Once I saw one in my dad’s blackberries.

Skinny grass-green Flash tripped over my flip-flop, made me laugh.

 

To fill my basket takes six passes.

Once each side that-away looking down,

One this-away looking up (which makes four).

Two more trips, one each direction,

Flat-footing a rusted vintage chair, non-wobbly against a thick post.

I figured the top gatherings shouldn’t count for more than two passes,

Although–The twenty-steps afoot do require two moves of the ladder for each side,

Six mounts and dismounts, too.

 

If I wanted, I could count as trips the shorter jaunts between the makeshift scaffolding.

I could. The truth is these are my berries now.

I decide—to pluck or to leave,

Jam or jelly, canned or frozen, cobbler or double-crust, fresh or later.

Are they sweet this year? I take the largest one, let the taste linger.

No, my berries are tart, not at all like my dad’s, nothing to remind me of him.

 

Some say to stand on a rusty chair instead of a stepstool is to welcome a fall.

Sometimes, often, I think they’re right.

Picking across the top takes practice and balance,

And vision adapted to a peripheral gaze across a close horizon.

Within my reach waits a sturdy brace,

Sunk deep in the ground

To the credit of a post-hole digger he brought from the farm.

 

 

Why They Came

First the black bear walked in. He left the door open behind him. I squatted behind the tan leather sofa while he rummaged through the kitchen cabinets to find some shortbread cookies. Then a white-tail deer trotted in. She stood just a few inches away from my hiding place and watched the bear. I glanced at the dark, shiny wood floors and feared that dear Mrs. Deer would leave hoof marks. The grey squirrel came in talking, tail twitching. “Cashews. Give me cashews. Or popcorn.”

Sometime after that, the dream ended and I opened my eyes and laughed out loud. Dave and I were in our favorite cabin hideaway in Asheville, North Carolina. We’d come to see the roses in bloom at The Biltmore. The night before, while Dave lifted the cooler onto the front porch, I read the laminated sign posted beside the door. “Do not leave your front door open. Bears have been sighted on the grounds.”

Inside, another sign referenced a grey squirrel that might appear on the deck seeking an anticipated snack from new residents. We didn’t see any bears, but the squirrel story was a bit understated. The squirrel stood on his hind legs and knocked on the sliding glass door. We were forced to encourage him by giving him popcorn and peanuts, which we had to partially shell before he would dig in. He was a relentless pest for the three days we were in Dad’s Digs—came inside the living room once and we lured him out with crackers. “Pest,” that’s what they really meant to write on the warning sign, not “pet.”

We did see some deer, but none so brave as to walk into the living room while a bear searched for cookies and a squirrel made demands. Of course, we were careful to keep the doors closed.

So far, no raccoon, fox, nor groundhog has wandered into the house here on the ravine. If any one of them were to visit, he’d probably come into The Cellar, the place where I keep an office and a second kitchen. One reason to appreciate this small efficiency apartment in our walk-out basement is that the dirt comes in here instead of the regular living quarters upstairs. The first landing for hedge trimmers, grimy work gloves, and buckets of whatever vegetable is currently prolific in the garden—today that would be turnip greens—is a counter height table that my dad made for me out of old lumber and four-by-fours. He painted the top turnip-green green.

The garden tools and produce—and dirt—are things that we bring in. And then there are the things that just come in, on their own. Leaves, for instance. Oh, sure, we bring in a few leaves on our shoes, but nothing compared to the brown, orange, and yellow piles that rush with the October wind every time a breeze blows through the opened door.

Some of the smaller critters have already headed indoors, and the entry point of least resistance is The Cellar. We’ve had some cold spells so I guess they’re trying to keep warm. It doesn’t hurt that there are so many good hiding places down here in The Cellar, either.

I don’t mind the occasional box elder bug but the mouse that scurried across the floor in front of the bookcases unnerved me. Dave came downstairs. (I suppose I might have screamed a little, too.) My good husband headed for the hardware store to buy mousetraps. He was gone for maybe ten minutes when I saw something moving from the back door and across the kitchen floor. I squinted my eyes. It was too slow to be a mouse but it was about that size. I eased up from my desk chair and tip-toed around the file cabinets to have a closer peek. A spider. A really big spider. Black, with hairy, meaty legs. On another day, I would find a way to move him outside; I don’t really hate spiders and I rarely kill one. However, my normal self had fled with the mouse so I threw a paper towel over him and stomped. Later I wished I had saved him in one of the fruit jars on the table so that I could show him off.

Dave baited three traps with peanut butter and placed them in various mouse-traffic patterns but for three days, no tell-tale “pop.” I was beginning to think the uninvited guest wanted cashews when Dave informed me on the fourth morning that he had “removed the little friend” and that the exterminator was coming.

Halloween seems to signal “fall-for-sure,” just as Thanksgiving says, “Winter is here.” People, critters, and things come inside. The grandkids and their friends from next door won’t be racing past the window by my desk much longer. Their scooters and bicycles will be tucked into garages and they will draw and paint, read, and watch videos-on-demand. We’ve already brought in the ferns and cactus, and we’ve moved the porch furniture closer to the house. Next frost, I’ll move the potted roses to the storage garage.

Halloween is also the date of my parents’ anniversary. This year, it was their 65th. Sixty. Five. Years. They were young when they took a taxi from the Smith County hills to just over the Georgia state line, just seventeen and fifteen. They looked young at their anniversary gala on Sunday afternoon, an event held in an old mansion that serves as the fellowship hall for Southeast United Methodist Church. Mom dolled up in an ivory embroidered suit with copper and silver accessories. Dad strutted around in his best black suit, an ivory rose tucked into his lapel, and leaned on his cane when he stopped to visit. Mom received most of the guests at a reserved table, but she eased around the room with Dad two or three times, once to pose with the stacked cake and once to receive the short blessing offered by Pastor Ann Cover.

The guests were plentiful and so were the reasons they came. Some came because they’re family; Mom and Dad lived away from Tennessee for most of their married life and every family gathering is a treat. On the memory-video, Aunt Bessie said, “See, now, if you’d stayed in California, I would have missed this.” Some were friends from church; one said, “We are so happy to have you here teaching our Sunday school class.” Some were members of the church Dad retired from; they said they’d never forget Mom and Dad. Heatherly said, “We just love your mama and daddy.” Some were members of a church that Dad pastored when they were teenagers; Jackie Edwards said, “Brother Blair, you’ve been my favorite for over fifty years.” Some worked with Mom when she was a credit manager for a boot company; Bill Black said, “We’ve made the 50th and the 60th and now the 65th and we’ll be here for the 70th—You are going to have another party, aren’t you?”

After the party, Dave and I had to make two trips in the van to bring home the decorations, dishes, and leftover cake. It was a really, really big tiered—no, “stacked”—cake that I carried in my lap on the second trip, the backend of the van full again. We agreed to take the cake in and leave everything else to unload the next morning.

Dave opened the passenger door and I eased out with the cake, being careful to keep it upright. I planned to re-frost the top where we had removed just one tier and take it to the Nashville Rescue Mission where they would serve it as dessert for dinner.

“This cake turned out beautiful,” I said. I had obsessed over the cake, a home creation a friend and I concocted. My friend has decorated a wedding cake. I had not, and until the bouquet of red roses, dogwood, fringe plant, and crape myrtle transformed the monstrosity, I almost would have paid somebody to take it.

Dave told me several times, “People aren’t coming to the party for the cake.” Well, no, that wasn’t the reason they came to Mom and Dad’s anniversary reception, but I was still thrilled—okay, “relieved”—when several ladies said it was the prettiest cake they’d ever seen. They even said it was the best-tasting white cake they’d ever had.

Just as I sat the cake down on the turnip-green table, I remembered the extra hors d’oeuvres I’d brought home. “Oh, shoot, Dave, those leftovers are somewhere in the back of the van, under something.”

It was dark, and we had not turned on the floodlights (switches upstairs) on the back drive and patio. The only light turned on was the motion-detector fixture over The Cellar’s door and we have it set to turn off after sixty seconds.

“Just wave or run around in front of it—and I’ll find the food,” I said.

Dave propped The Cellar door open and stationed himself.

“Well, we may as well take this stuff in if I’m going to have to move it anyway,” I said as I lifted item after item.

“Yeah, no need to move it twice,” Dave said and came for his first load.

While I started to dig again, Dave headed inside, his arms full of candles, dried boughs of fall berries, and tablecloths. As he set his load down, pushing bags under the table, the light clicked off. He hurried back out to wave it back on.

“Hey,” I heard him holler, “Get away from there!”

I jumped. Dave wasn’t talking to me. He was yelling at a raccoon making a run for The Cellar’s open door.

Now, that raccoon wasn’t cold and he didn’t need a place to hide. He did not express admiration for Mom and Dad’s sixty-five years of marriage nor did he claim nostalgia for having known them for so many years.

But he did have a reason. The raccoon came for the cake.

***